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Avengers: Season One by Peter David et al (Review)

This March, to celebrate the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’ll be taking a look at some classic and not-so-classic Avengers comic books. Check back daily for the latest updates!

What exactly is the point of Marvel’s Season One initiative? Is it to update the origins of classic superheroes to make them accessible to modern and casual audiences? Is it to re-tell familiar stories just with modern touches like Facebook and iPhone references? Is it to dance between the rain drops and package an adventure from the early days of our heroes’ careers without disrupting established continuity? Is it an attempt to reach beyond the core comic book audience? Is it an attempt to package some material for feature film adaptation?

It’ hard to know. Marvel has made some nods towards accessibility in recent years, but all too often these feel more like sales gimmicks than genuine attempts to court new readers. Written by comic book superstar (and successful novelist in his own right) Peter David, Avengers: Season One should be something of a slam dunk. It’s a book featuring characters from a multi-billion dollar movie franchise, in a stand-alone graphic novel, with a slew of great writers and untethered to serialised long-form storytelling.

Unfortunately, Avengers: Season One winds up feeling like a mess.

Here come the heroes...

Here come the heroes…

That mess feels like a result of some confusion on the part of the book. What is this meant to be about? The Season One books are a collection of prestige graphic novels featuring a bunch of talented creators working on all sorts of characters, from the iconic (Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men) to the second-tier (Ant-Man, Doctor Strange). These books were launched with much fanfare, even if the last releases were published in mid-2012.

Given that the initiative seems to be grounded in the success of the comic book movie industry, in the lead-up to the release of The Avengers, one might expect these books to be aimed at people who want to read an Avengers story without needing to follow a decade of Marvel’s convoluted continuity. The goal would seem to be that these fans could pick up a Season One graphic novel and enjoy it on its own terms, allowing the company to give modern readers a sense of the characters’ roots and origins without having to read dated Silver Age comics.

Hammering it home...

Hammering it home…

Writing accessible comic books seems to be very hard for a major comic book publisher. Marvel’s only real success in this area came with the launch of the Ultimate universe, an alternate reality that built its characters from scratch. Although there’s some debate over whether the books actually brought new readers, the results were striking – at some points these “ultimate” books were selling better than their mainstream counterparts. Naturally, the approach wasn’t sustainable, but it did demonstrate that accessibility was possible.

However, other attempts have been less than successful. Marvel launched its “point one” initiative to offer readers jumping-on points into its shared comic book universe. However, these books often felt like cynical attempts to double-ship popular titles. Often, these comics were either firmly tied into the issues proceeding them, or not at all leading into the issues that followed. (Some even served as not-even-thinly-veiled pilots or crossovers into other series.

Loki's scheme is on the rocks...

Loki’s scheme is on the rocks…

More recently, DC’s New 52 relaunch attempted to welcome new readers by dumping a significant portion of its continuity and starting a lot from scratch. This worked well for a number of books, but it also caused a significant amount of confusion. Popular books like Green Lantern and Batman did not want to dump years of successful mythology, so some continuity carried over and some did not, leading to a confusing mess. The choice of talent working on the relaunch was not necessarily ideal, either.

So, writing an accessible mainstream comic book is apparently quite difficult. However, even by those standards, Avengers: Season One doesn’t work. It feels like an extended continuity-fest flashback, an attempt to retroactively craft an adventure drawing on various strings of existing continuity in the style of the Silver Age, only with slightly more modern characterisation and occasional references to modern technology.

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

As such, it doesn’t feel like its own story with its own identity, just something like a very bland entry in a non-existant The Untold Tales of the Avengers comic book. The story relies pretty heavily on the events of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Avengers #1, with Loki plotting his revenge on the costumed heroes that defeated him. Oddly enough, despite the comic’s heavily reliance on internal continuity, he only seems to swear vengeance against the heroes with profitable movie franchises. Giant Man and the Wasp avoid his wraith.

So this is a sequel to a published story, but a sequel that seems tailored to play off the success of a movie that follows an entirely different plot. David’s decision to adopt a “broad strokes” approach to continuity and focus on the Avengers from the film franchise might make sense, if the book didn’t wallow in other bits of comic book history. The Hulk appears in his grey form at one point. Thor is confronted by obscured third-tier baddie Zarko, “the self-proclaimed ‘tomorrow man.'”

Bricking it...

Bricking it…

The result is an awkward mess. Despite the clear focus on the popular movie franchise, Avengers: Season One basks in comic book silliness. This is grand – I love comic book silliness. The problem is that the internal logic doesn’t hold up. Tony Stark is cynical about Thor’s claims to being the God of Thunder. This makes a fair amount of sense – Stark is a rational scientist and Thor is something novel. However, when the Stone Men from Saturn arrive, Stark’s doubts about Thor make him doubt the Norse deity even more.

“That would explain his powers,” Stark remarks to himself, “his ridiculous stories about being a god… Everything!” One wonders when stone men from Saturn who conveniently appear and disappear are any more or less ridiculous than a lifeform advanced enough to pose as a Norse god. Given that there is no evidence of life on Saturn, Stark’s rejection of Thor’s Asgardian origins and readiness to accept the Stone Men from Saturn at face value seems a little arbitrary.

All the way to Reno...

All the way to Reno…

At the same time, none of this has any real weight to it. The character interactions feel like corny Silver Age writing. Captain America discovers that the Red Skull has somehow survived the end of the Second World War. He doesn’t seem too phased by all this. “Somehow, I knew,” he reflects. “If Captain America could survive to the present day, so could the Red Skull.” One might imagine the survival of his arch-enemy would phase him more. However, he doesn’t seem too bothered by all that.

Peter David seems to be trying to channel a very Silver Age storytelling style. Characters spend pages talking themselves, offering plot-drive exposition in speech bubbles. None of the events seem to have any real impact on the characters, with nobody being phased by any of the wackiness unfolding around them. The Avengers might be a young and inexperienced team in Avengers: Season One, but there’s no sense of dramatic weight to this.

Punching above his weight...

Punching above his weight…

More than that, the Silver Age storytelling style feels a little out of place given the other trappings of the book. Most obviously, the focus on the characters featured in The Avengers feels quite surreal, when the versions on the page feel decidedly simplistic and old-fashioned compared to the incarnation appearing in the franchise. Characterisation and storytelling has moved on since the sixties, and David’s nostalgic throwback feels a little too dated.

This appears particularly awkward when the script tries so hard to bring other trappings up to date. There are a number of awkward references to contemporary technology that feel a lot like the references to (and appearances of) computers in John Byrne’s retelling of Spider-Man’s origin story in his much-maligned Spider-Man: Chapter One. When Thor remarks that Bards will sign of their victories, Iron Man reflects, “Bards? Seriously? I’ll be happy if we get some ‘likes’ on our fan page.”

Locking horns...

Locking horns…

Much of Avengers: Season One seems rushed, as if it were written and illustrated very quickly in order to get it to market in time for the release of the blockbuster motion picture. David’s script is awkwardly structured – throwing fight scene after fight scene with lost of clumsily-written monologues. The ending doesn’t feel like a satisfactory pay-off, with Loki himself dispatched in the space of a page. Although the artists working on the book are pretty talented, there are quite a few of them – cementing the impression the book was rushed to print.

Avengers: Season One should be a celebration of the franchise that has turned Marvel into a blockbuster powerhouse. There’s an incredible amount of talent involved in this original graphic novel, even if the number of different artists working on the book is a little disconcerting. Peter David is a fantastic writer, but Avengers: Season One can’t help but feel a little muddled and confused, unsure of both what it wants to be and how it wants to be about it.

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